When it comes to red light cameras, police shouldn't be above the law

Published May 23, 2012

The policy, as I understand it, goes something like this:


That would be the sound of your police chiefs in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Port Richey explaining how their officers are above the law.

Red lights? Pfffftt!

Public safety? Pfffftt!

Fair treatment? Pfffftt!

Now I may have the official wording wrong, but this seems to be the gist of the policy. That's because police officers in these cities are apparently exempt from those red light camera tickets that have been dinging your bank account lately.

This isn't a wink-wink, nudge-nudge case of one officer giving a break to a comrade wearing a badge. This is departmental policy.

It is also ludicrous. And shameful. And against the law.

The policies were revealed Wednesday in a story by Tampa Bay Times reporter Michael Van Sickler, with an assist from citizen Matt Florell, who first alerted the St. Petersburg City Council about this last week.

Just to be clear, we're not talking about emergency responders with lights flashing. We're not talking about stealth chases or urgent calls. These are specific cases of police cars going through a red light for no legitimate reason.

So how do our local police officials justify this flouting of traffic laws?

Not very well.

Let me say up front that I've always been impressed with St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. He seems like a smart, decent, dedicated fellow. So I can only assume he had recently suffered a blow to the head when he offered some of these explanations to Van Sickler.

"The reason why is that police have the authority to run red lights.''

They also have the authority to carry guns and apprehend citizens, but that doesn't mean they can shoot or arrest people willy-nilly.

We're not talking about giving a cop preferential treatment at the dry cleaners or Pollo Tropical. This is ignoring actual public safety laws that police are sworn to uphold.

"If they don't have a legitimate reason, I want to discipline them. But I'm not going to also fine them.''

Why not? Departmental discipline does not trump the law. And this idea that no one ever gets punished twice for the same offense is bogus.

If a FedEx driver or an ice cream truck driver started piling up tickets, do you think he might be subject to discipline at work? If a student gets caught smoking marijuana, can he skip the whole hassle of handcuffs and trial because the school is already going to suspend him?

"We drive 4 million miles a year, and it's happened a handful of times. It's not as pervasive as it appears.''

Oh. I didn't realize this was a defense. So because I commute 50 miles a day round trip, I'm allowed to tell any officer who pulls me over that I should get extra consideration? I wonder how that will work.

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Look, I'm not trying to pick on the police chief. As I said, I like Chief Harmon. I'll go even further and say that I love cops. Absolutely love 'em.

They stand between us and the bad guys. They represent all that is righteous and true about our communities.

And I suppose that's the point. I love our law enforcement because they stand for something. And if they're allowed to be above the law — especially on an issue as trivial as this — then we undermine everything they do stand for.